At the start of each semester when I was the director of the Equine Center at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., I would ask the new students, "What do you think would improve your riding most?" And 90 percent of them answer that they wish they could see a distance--the logical place for a horse to leave the ground without making a major adjustment to his stride.
A good distance is one of the basic requirements of jumping because it allows a horse to give his very best effort in the air, use his back and legs properly and have a better chance of jumping safely, so that neither he nor his rider gets frightened or hurt. Why is it so hard to see? After years of teaching and judging, I've come to the conclusion that many riders--and you may be one of them--have been correctly taught to look for a jump out of a turn, but then, a few strides out, to take their eyes off the jump and move them up into the trees or to something else outside the ring.
And POOF! You can't see where the jump is anymore and you miss the distance in one of three ways:
1. You think you've arrived at a good time and place to leave the ground so you lean toward the jump and go. But your horse--who also has eyes and is using them--says, "Wait, I'm not ready!" He ends up getting a deep distance, "chipping" (putting in an additional stride or portion of a stride) or stopping, with you possibly flying over his head.
2. You don't think you've arrived but your horse does. He leaves the ground and you--very surprised--get left in the back seat, where you commit the cardinal sin of jumping: You hit him in the back and the mouth, which punishes him for doing what he was supposed to do.
3. You and your horse actually agree on a takeoff spot, but you try to jump for him. This last "miss" is subtler than the first two, but by leaning up his neck in front of the saddle with your lower leg slipping back, you get ahead of his natural balance. He responds with loose form and ends up "over his front end" or having a rail.
If you like to compete, a missed distance can mean the difference between winning a ribbon and not placing. Even if you have no interest in showing, there is no better fun to be had than to ride a horse who's jumping in good form because you're seeing each distance.
The Solution is Simple
Learn to focus on the jump you're jumping and lift your eyes only when you feel your horse's front feet leave the ground--but never look up, up, up into the treetops. You'll be able to see a distance because your eyes will see and "measure" the jump, and almost more importantly, you and your horse will see the same jump. Sound contrary to everything you've ever been taught? It probably is, but riding is as much a sport of hand, eye and body coordination as any other sport. At Little League games, what do you hear the coaches yell at their batters? "Keep your eye on the ball!" On the golf course, the pro tells you to keep your head down and look at the ball until you hit it. In tennis, it's "keep your eye on the ball until you make contact and then follow through."
That's why I believe that every jump requires a "sharp" eye-on-the-ball focus. But to successfully navigate a course, you also need a peripheral-vision "soft" eye to take in the big picture and "track" the next jump--look for the place where you want to turn to line up with the jump and commit to it. Then as your horse's front feet leave the ground, you can look ahead for the turn or the next jump or even take a breather before you have to measure a distance again. I tell my students that jumping a course is like driving to the market. There's a difference between looking at the road, the other vehicles and the scenery with a "soft" eye, and using a "sharp" eye to accurately steer into a parking space once you arrive.